Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker Ensemble, Guildford Cathedral

First review : Charlie Allison, for BtP

in aid of the Jubilee Action Tsunami Survivors Fund, Saturday 16 April 2005

Come! Worship and Praise!

About 1,000 locals and 99 Palers (the usual motley crew from Italy, Portugal, the US, Scotland, Jersey, London, Bristol and the Shires) gathered at Guildford Cathedral – surely the biggest brick outhouse in the Empire, sitting atop heart-attack hill – to hear a superbly crafted programme of music.

The musical cast was similar to Gary's previous forays into this 'Songs of Praise' genre – the Chameleon Arts String Orchestra and Choir, the accomplished organist Jeremy Filsell, Gary himself on the piano, and a coterie of trusted musician friends: Andy Fairweather Low on guitar, Matt Pegg on bass, Henry Spinetti on drums, Graham Broad on percussion, and Frank Mead on various saxes, flute and penny-whistle. Not only did they all sound smart, but they all looked smart too in suits: there were no rock tee-shirts, glitter or sprayed-on jeans at this gig!

In contrast to the Cathedral's arguably ugly exterior (somewhat reminiscent of a Pink Floyd album cover) the interior presented a lightness of stone and an oasis of calm. Roland had wangled it for the Palers to be assembled in the VIP rows at the front, with all seats identified with a BtP name-plate. It was a long hall and a video screen behind the stage projected close-ups of the performers to those less fortunate folk stationed further back in the nave.

We started in daylight,  after welcomes from a Chamber of Commerce chap and the jolly Dean, Victor Stock (who thought he’d detected familiar whiffs from his student days of yesteryear!), with the whole ensemble playing a mediaeval-sounding instrumental piece, Pastime with Good Company, written by King Henry VIII, featuring Frank Mead on a wee penny whistle!

Quiet orchestra-only and choir-only pieces followed (Elgar’s Chanson de Matin and Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea) before the rock musicians returned to the stage for a beautiful rendition of A Salty Dog (Latin intro version). This was an early chance to observe how perfect the sound balance was and how professionally the musicians played individually and integrated into a whole which was greater than the sum of the parts. The beefy church organ in the third verse was worthy of note. Gary was in particularly fine voice, well suited to the Cathedral's neutral acoustic. A rousing ovation showed how highly he is regarded in his own Surrey community.

Guest Paul Jones sang What a Friend We Have in Jesus, trading harmonica licks with Frank on sax. It then became clear how Paul has Peter-Panned his youthful looks when his glamorous wife Fiona Hadley joined him for You Bring the Sun Out.  Gary then welcomed everybody (enquiring if we were having a good time) and then asked if the next item was “one of mine?” only to be told “No”: he trooped off to hear what was one of the musical highlights of the entire evening, a stunningly-beautiful orchestra and organ rendition of Albinoni's Adagio.
Gary returned to warn us of what awful things they were going to do to Psalm 150 - 'Praise the Lord with the flute and the lyre', except it was the organ, drums and bass guitar. Psalm for St Mary's he called it– as heard it on the Ensemble CD.

The first half concluded with an extended and most perfect Within our House, too intricate and delicate maybe for a rock venue but wistful and moving in this setting. I particularly liked the solo then duetted voices in the choir, who explored every nuance of this beautiful song. It received a prolonged ovation and was the perfect number to discuss in the fresh air at the interval. Gary promised to look for some throat sweets, having juggled and lost his last one on the floor. He had warned us this song was at the edge of his range (what nonsense, he sang it impeccably!)

The second half opened in a darkened church, with so much theatrical smoke emerging from stage left that it looked like they had just elected a new Pope in the vestry. Later, the Dean (or “Vic” as Gary referred to him, as he told us he'd found a packet of lozenges in Vic’s cassock) thought this a riotously funny concept. He was pleased the event had brought so many new people to his church, though he jested about how suitable some of them might have been!

We were treated to Holding On, an appropriate song for the occasion, with Henry and Graham working overtime over in percussion and the orchestra and choir blending perfectly. Gary did the solo in the middle where normally the guitar is.

We then had a great organ recital from Jeremy Filsell: Bach's Sinfonia from Cantata No 29 which was very fluently and powerfully performed by the organist on high. Two lovely choir pieces followed – My Lord What a Morning and Steal Away to Jesus. Then it was an Ensemble favourite, Peace in the Valley, described by Gary as being 'from the Tommy Dorsey/Elvis Presley songbook'.

Gary then introduced Desideramus, a choral work written by his friend Paul 'Wix' Wickens (who was in the audience – so incidentally was Josh Phillips). This was first performed at Douglas Adams’s memorial service – how appropriate when the movie version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is to be released in the coming week. Gary invited us to think quietly about the poor people who had perished on Boxing Day in the Tsunami and this further heightened the drama of this superbly crafted item.

The Chameleon Strings gave us three movements of Warlock’s Capriol Suite. What a wonderful conductor Andrew Phillips is – bringing such precision and harmony to all he commands, both in the orchestra and the choir.

Then it was The Long Goodbye (no, too soon!) with Frank Mead blowing up a storm in the solo – though his great feat of the evening was still to come. I noticed a video shot of Frank framed in a doorway with the inscription “Praise the Lord” – how appropriate! It would be great if we could acquire a still of this for the website.

Andy was introduced for the gospelly Jesus on the Mainline - Gary asked if he had ever played the electric guitar he had plugged in! Andy had played acoustic and mandolin over much of the evening.

Gary then introduced the song 'that everyone would know':  AWSoP (two-verse orchestral version, with the organ there but distant) – naturally it received a big ovation at the end. After band introductions (with Gary revealing that he was going to Tamil Nadu to perform a couple of benefit gigs, check out the rebuilding process and maybe do some fishing himself!) he invited Matt to start the last number, Grand Finale:  a strong and powerful version, uniquely with an unrestrained, superb sax solo from Frank Mead in place of that searing guitar we know and love.

At the end, everyone was up applauding wildly and enthusiastically, and not just the Palers!

Twenty-six of us followed our pixie Pied Piper of Procoldom to an Indian diner where by some amazing coincidence Gary, Franky and the musicians were also having a post-concert curry. Gary was really pleased the evening had gone so well and had been enjoyed by everybody, but was somewhat non-forthcoming about plans for the rest of the year, save to confirm the Madras trip was 'on'.

The Guildford Palers then beat a retreat back up the hill to our Hotel, leaving Roland to the inevitable debt of he-who-last-pays-the-bill. Don't worry - we'll all chip in when we next meet. And thanks Roland for your superb programme notes, a marvellous encyclopaedic record in thumbnail pictures and 6-point words, perfect for rock archivists and opticians everywhere.

A great night, a really grand event and very big fund-raising achieved too. More please from Gary and Procol Harum – maybe in Scotland (and Lisbon!) someday?

Thanks, Charlie, for text and pictures

Index page for the Tsunami Concert in Guildford

Gary Brooker Ensemble on CD

Procol Harum concerts in 2005: index page

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